Mud Mosques of Mali

[Image: Tambeni Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2001].

Belgian photograper Sebastian Schutyser spent nearly four years photographing the mud mosques of Mali. A collection of 200 such black & white photographs is now online at ArchNet.

The project “began in 1998,” Schutyser explains: “For several months I traveled from village to village by bicycle and ‘pirogue’, navigating with IGN 1:200.000 maps. The inaccessibility of the area made me realize why this hadn’t been done before.”

[Images: (top) Noga Mosque, (bottom) Tenenkou Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2001].

Within a few years, however, and over a period lasting roughly till the Spring of 2002, Schutyser managed “to travel faster, and reach the most remote parts of the Inner Delta. To increase the documentary value of the collection, I worked with 35mm color slides, and photographed every mosque from different angles. Whenever I encountered a particularly pretty mosque, I also photographed it on 4-5 inch black & white negative, to add to the ‘vintage’ collection.”

[Images: (top) Sébi Mosque, (bottom) Tilembeya Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 1998].

“With 515 mosques photographed,” Schutyser writes, “this collection shows a representative image of the adobe mosques of the Niger Inner Delta. Advancing modernity, and a lack of appreciation for this ‘archaic’ approach to building, are serious threats to the continuity of this living architecture.”

I might also add that each building is a kind of ritually re-repaired ventilation machine capable of generating its own microclimate: “During the day,” ArchNet explains, “the walls absorb the heat of the day that is released throughout the night, helping the interior of the mosque remain cool all day long. Some structures, for example, Djenné’s Great Mosque, also have roof vents with ceramic caps. These caps, made by the town’s women, can be removed at night to ventilate the interior spaces. Masons have integrated palm wood scaffolding into the building’s construction, not as beams, but as permanent scaffolding for the workers who apply plaster annually during the spring festival to restore the mosque. The palm beams also minimize the stress that comes from the extreme temperature and humidity changes typical of the climate.”

Finally, each tower is “often topped with a spire capped by an ostrich egg, symbolizing fertility and purity.”

Schutyser’s images have been collected in a beautiful book, co-written with Dorothee Gruner and Jean Dethier, called Banco: Adobe Mosques of the Inner Niger Delta.

[Image: Sinam Mosque; Sebastian Schutyser, 2002].

(All images in this post are ©Sebastian Schutyser).

Planet of Slums: An Interview with Mike Davis (pt. 2)

This is the second part of a two-part interview with Mike Davis, author, sociologist, and urban theorist, recorded upon the publication of his book, Planet of Slums. If you missed part one, here it is.

In this installment, Davis discusses the rise of Pentecostalism in global mega-slums; the threat of avian flu; the disease vectors of urban poverty; criminal and terrorist mini-states; the future of sovereignty; environmental footprints; William Gibson; the allure of Hollywood; and Viggo Mortensen‘s publishing imprint, Perceval Press.

BLDGBLOG: In an earlier, essay-length version of Planet of Slums, you write at some length about the rise of Pentecostalism as a social and organizational force in the slums – but that research is missing from the actual book, Planet of Slums. Are you distancing yourself from that research, or perhaps less interested now in its implications?

Davis: Actually, several hundred pages on Pentecostalism are now being decanted in the second volume, written with Forrest Hylton, where they properly belong. But the historical significance of Pentecostalism – evangelical Christianity – is that it’s the first modern religious movement, I believe – or religious sect – which emerged out of the urban poor. Although there are many gentrified Pentecostal churches in the United States today, and even in places like Brazil, the real crucible of Pentecostalism – the spiritual experience which propels it – the whole logic of Pentecostalism – remains within the urban poor.

Of course, Pentecostalism, in most places, is also, overwhelmingly, a religion of women – and in Latin America, at least, it has an actual material benefit. Women who join the church, and who can get their husbands to join with them, often see significant increases in their standard of living: the men are less likely to drink, or whore, or gamble all their money away.

For someone like myself, writing from the left, it’s essential to come to grips with Pentecostalism. This is the largest self-organized movement of poor urban people in the world – at least among movements that emerged in the twentieth century. It has shown an ability to take root, dynamically, not only in Latin America but in southern and western Africa, and – to a much smaller extent – in east Asia. I think many people on the left have made the mistake of assuming that Pentecostalism is a reactionary force – and it’s not. It’s actually a hugely important phenomenon of the postmodern city, and of the culture of the urban poor in Latin American and Africa.

BLDGBLOG: Outside of simply filling a void left behind by the retreat of the State, what’s the actual appeal of Pentecostalism for this new generation of urban poor?

Davis: Frankly, one of the great sources of Pentecostalism’s appeal is that it’s a kind of para-medicine. One of the chief factors in the life of the poor today is a constant, chronic crisis of health and medicine. This is partially a result of the World Bank’s Structural Adjustment Programs in the 1980s, which devastated public health and access to medicine in so many countries. But Pentecostalism offers faith healing, which is a major attraction – and it’s not entirely bogus. When it comes to things like addictive behavior, Pentecostalism probably has as good a track record curing alcoholism, neuroses, and obsessions as anything else. That’s a huge part of its appeal. Pentecostalism is a kind of spiritual health delivery system.

BLDGBLOG: It would seem that human overpopulation is, in and of itself, turning cities into slums. In other words, no matter what governmental steps or state-based programs are devised to address urban poverty, slums are just a by-product of overpopulation.

Davis: Well, I don’t actually believe in the notion of overpopulation – particularly as it’s now become clear that the most extreme projections of human population growth just aren’t coming to pass. Probably for the last ten or fifteen years, demographers have been steadily reducing their projections.

The paramount question is not whether the population has grown too large, but: how do you square the circle between, on the one hand, social justice with some kind of equitable right to a decent standard of living, and, on the other, environmental sustainability? There aren’t too many people in the world – but there is, obviously, over-consumption of non-renewable resources on a planetary scale. Of course, the way to square that circle – the solution to the problem – is the city itself. Cities that are truly urban are the most environmentally efficient systems that we have ever created for living together and working with nature. The particular genius of the city is its ability to provide high standards of living through public luxury and public space, and to satisfy needs that can never be meet by the suburban private consumption model.

Having said that, the problem of urbanization in the world today is that it’s not urbanism in the classic sense. The real challenge is to make cities better as cities. I think Planet of Slums addresses the reality that every complaint made by sociologists in the 1950s and 60s about American suburbia is now true on an exponentially increased scale with poor cities: all the problems with sprawl, all the problems with an increasing amount of time and resources tied up in commutes to work, all the problems with environmental pollution, all the problems with the lack of traditional urban apparatuses of leisure, recreation, social services and so on.

BLDGBLOG: Yet a city like Khartoum – or even Cairo – simply doesn’t have the environmental resources to support such a large human population. No matter what the government decides to do, there are simply too many people. Eventually you hit a wall. So there can’t be a European-style social model, based on taxation and the supply of municipal services, if there aren’t the necessary environmental resources.

Davis: Well, I’d say it the other way around, actually. If you look at a city like Los Angeles, and its extreme dependence on regional infrastructure, the question of whether certain cities become monstrously over-sized has less to do with the number of people living there, than with how they consume, whether they reuse and recycle resources, whether they share public space. So I wouldn’t say that a city like Khartoum is an impossible city; that has much more to do with the nature of private consumption.

People talk about environmental footprints, but the environmental footprints of different groups who make up a population tend to differ dramatically. In California, for instance, within the right-wing of the Sierra Club, and amongst anti-immigrant groups, there’s this belief that a huge tide of immigration from Mexico is destroying the environment, and that all these immigrants are actually responsible for the congestion and the pollution – but that’s absurd. Nobody has a smaller environmental footprint, or tends to use public space more intensely, than Latin American immigrants. The real problem is white guys in golf carts out on the hundred and ten golf courses in the Coachella Valley. In other words, one retired white guy my age may be using up a resource base ten, twenty, thirty times the size of a young chicana trying to raise her family in a small apartment in the city.

So Malthusianism, in a crude sense, keeps reappearing in these debates, but the real question is not about panicking in the face of future population growth or immigration, but how to invest in the genius of urbanism. How to make suburbs, like those of Los Angeles, function as cities in a more classical sense. There’s an absolute, essential need to preserve green areas and environmental reserves. A city can’t operate without those. Of course, the pattern everywhere in the world is for poverty – for housing and development – to spill over into crucial watersheds, to build up around reservoirs and open spaces that are essential to the metabolism of the city. Even this astonishing example in Mumbai, where people have pushed so far into the adjacent Sanjay Gandhi National Park that slum dwellers are now being eaten by leopards – or Sao Paulo, which uses astronomical amounts of water purification chemicals because it’s fighting a losing battle against the pollution of its watershed.

If you allow that kind of growth, if you lose the green areas and the open spaces, if you pump out the aquifers, if you terminally pollute the rivers, then, of course, you can do fatal damage to the ecology of the city.

BLDGBLOG: One of the things I found most interesting in your recent book, Monster At Our Door, is the concept of “biosecurity.” Could you explain how biosecurity is, or is not, being achieved on the level of urban space and architectural design?

Davis: I see the whole question of epidemic control and biosecurity being modeled after immigration control. That’s the reigning paradigm right now. Of course, it’s a totally false analogy – particularly when you deal with something like influenza, which can’t be quarantined. You can’t build walls against it. Biosecurity, in a globalized world that contains as much poverty and squalor as our urban world does, is impossible. There is no biosecurity. The continuing quest will be to achieve the biological equivalent of a gated community, with the control of movement and with regulations that just enforce all the most Orwellian tendencies – the selective creation and provision of vaccines, anti-virals, and so on.

But, at the end of the day, biosecurity is an impossibility – until you address the essence of the problem: which is public health for the poor, and the ecological sustainability of the city.

In Monster At Our Door, I cite what I thought was an absolutely model study, published in Science, about how breakneck urbanization in western Africa is occurring at the same time that European factory ships are coming in and scooping up all the fish protein. This has turned urban populations massively to bush meat – which was already a booming business because of construction crews logging out the last tropical forests in west Africa – and, presto: you get HIV, you get ebola, you get unknown plagues. I thought the article was an absolutely masterful description of inadvertent causal linkages, and the complex ecology – the environmental impact – that urbanization has. Likewise, with urbanization in China and southeast Asia, the industrialization of poultry seems to be one of the chief factors behind the threat of avian flu.

As any epidemiologist will tell you, these are just the first, new plagues of globalization – and there will be more. The idea that you can defend against diseases by the equivalent of a gated community is ludicrous, but it’s exactly the direction in which public health policy is being directed. As we’ve seen, unless you’re prepared to shoot down all the migratory birds in the world –

BLDGBLOG: Which I’m sure someone has suggested.

Davis: I mean, I did a lot of calculator work on the UN data, from The Challenge of Slums, calculating urban densities and so on, and this is the Victorian world writ large. Just as the Victorian middle classes could not escape the diseases of the slums, neither will the rich, bunkered down in their country clubs or inside gated communities. The whole obsession now is that avian flu will be brought into the country by –

BLDGBLOG: A Mexican!

Davis: Exactly: it’ll be smuggled over the border – which is absurd. This ongoing obsession with illegal immigration has become a one-stop phantasmagoria for… everything. Of course, it goes back to primal, ancient fears: the Irish brought typhoid, the Chinese brought plague. It’s old hat.

The other thing that’s happening, of course, is that bird flu is being used as a competitive strategy by large-scale, industrialized producers of livestock to force independent producers to the wall. These industrial-scale farms are claiming that only indoor, bio-secured, industrially farmed poultry is safe. This is part of a very complex process of global competition. In Monster At Our Door I cite the case of CP, in Thailand – the Tyson of SE Asia. Even as they’re being wiped-out in Thailand, unable to exploit their chickens, they’re opening new factories in Bulgaria – and profiting from the panic over chicken from Thailand. In other words, avian flu is being used to rationalize and further centralize the poultry industry – yet it appears, to a lot of people, that it’s precisely the industrialization of poultry that has not just allowed the emergence of avian flu but has actually sped up its evolution.

BLDGBLOG: What would a biosecure world actually look like, on the level of architecture and urban design? How do you construct biosecurity? Do you see any evidence that the medical profession is being architecturally empowered, so to speak, influencing the design of “disease-free” public spaces?

Davis: Well, sure. It’s exactly how Victorian social control over the slums was defined as a kind of hygienic project – or in the same way that urban segregation was justified in colonial cities as a problem of sanitation. Everywhere these discourses reinforce one another. What really has been lacking, however, is one big epidemic, originating in poverty, that hits the middle classes – because then you’ll see people really go berzerk. I think one of the most important facts about our world is that middle class people – above all, middle class Americans – have lived inside a historical bubble that really has no precedent in the rest of human history. For two, three, almost four, generations now, they have not personally experienced the cost of war, have not experienced epidemic disease – in other words, they have lived in an ever-increasing arc not only of personal affluence but of personal longevity and security from accidental death, war, disease, and so on. Now if that were abruptly to come to a halt – to be interrupted by a very bad event, like a pandemic, that begins killing some significant number of middle class Americans – then obviously all hell is going to break loose.

The one thing I’m firmly convinced of is that the larger, affluent middle classes in this country will never surrender their lifestyle and its privileges. If suddenly faced with a threat in which they may be made homeless by disaster, or killed by plagues, I think you can expect very, very irrational reactions – which of course will inscribe themselves in a spatial order, and probably in spectacular ways. I think one thing that would emerge after an avian flu pandemic, if it does occur, will be a lot of focus on biosecurity at the level of domestic space.

BLDGBLOG: Duct tape and plastic sheeting.

Davis: Sure.

BLDGBLOG: What has happened to the status or role of the nation-state – of sovereignty, territory, citizenship, etc.? For instance, are national governments being replaced by multinational corporations, and citizens by employees?

Davis: That’s a very interesting question. Clearly, though, what’s happened with globalization has not been the transcendence of the nation-state by the corporation, or by new, higher-level entities. What we’ve seen is much more of a loss of sovereignty on some levels – and the reinforcement of sovereignty on others.

Obviously, the whole process of Structural Adjustment in the 1980s meant the ceding of much local sovereignty and powers of local government to the international bodies that administer debt. The World Bank, for example, working with NGOs, creates networks that often dilute local sovereignty. A brilliant example of this problem is actually what’s happening right now in New Orleans: all the expert commissions, and the oversight boards, and the off-site authorities that are being proposed will basically destroy popular government in New Orleans, reducing the city council to a figurehead and transferring power back to the traditional elite. And that’s all in the name of fighting corruption and so on.

But whether you’ll see new kinds of supra-national entities emerge depends, I think, on the country. Obviously some countries are strengthening their national positions – the state remains all important – while other countries have effectively lost all sovereignty. I mean, look at an extreme case, like Haiti.

BLDGBLOG: How are these shifts being accounted for in the geopolitical and military analyses you mentioned earlier?

Davis: The problem that military planners, and some geopoliticians, are talking about is actually something quite different: that’s the emergence, in hundreds of both little and major nodes across the world, of essentially autonomous slums governed by ethnic militias, gangs, transnational crime, and so on. This is something the Pentagon is obviously very interested in, and concerned about, with Mogadishu as a kind of prototype example. The ongoing crisis of the Third World city is producing almost feudalized patterns of large slum neighborhoods that are effectively terrorist or criminal mini-states – rogue micro-sovereignties. That’s the view of the Pentagon and of Pentagon planners. They also seem quite alarmed by the fact that the peri-urban slums – the slums on the edges of cities – lack clear hierarchies. Even more difficult, from a planning perspective, there’s very little available data. The slums are kind of off the radar screen. They therefore become the equivalent of rain forest, or jungle: difficult to penetrate, impossible to control.

I think there are fairly smart Pentagon thinkers who don’t see this so much as a question of regions, or categories of nation-states, so much as holes, or enclaves within the system. One of the best things I ever read about this was actually William Gibson’s novel Virtual Light. Gibson proposes that, in a world where giant multinational capital is supreme, there are places that simply aren’t valuable to the world economy anymore – they don’t reproduce capital – and so those spaces are shunted aside. A completely globalized system, in Gibson’s view, would leak space – it would have internal redundancies – and one of those spaces, in Virtual Light, is the Bay Bridge.

But, sure, this is a serious geopolitical and military problem: if you conduct basically a triage of the world’s human population – where some people are exiled from the world economy, and some spaces no longer have roles – then you’re offering up ideal opportunities for other people to step in and organize those spaces to their own ends. This is a deeper and more profound situation than any putative conflicts of civilization. It is, in a way, a very unexpected end to the 20th century. Neither classical Marxism, nor any other variety of classical social theory or neoliberal economics, ever predicted that such a large fraction of humanity would live in cities and yet basically outside all the formal institutions of the world economy.

BLDGBLOG: Is there an economic solution, then?

Davis: You’ll never re-conquer these parts of the city simply through surveillance, or military invasion, or policing – you have to offer the people some way to re-connect with the world economy. Until you can provide resources, or jobs, the danger is that this will worsen. People are being thrown back onto tribal and ethnic clientelism of one kind or another as a means of survival – even as a means of excluding other poor people from these already limited resources. Increasingly, new arrivals in the city – the sons and daughters of the urban poor – are being pressed by tighter housing markets, and by the inability to find cheap – certainly not free – land. Where cheap land does exist, it only exists because the land is otherwise undevelopable. It’s too dangerous. You’re just wagering on natural disaster. In fact, the end of this frontier of squattable land is one conclusion of Planet of Slums.

Another conclusion is that almost all the research on informal urban economies has shown that informality is simply not generating job ladders. Sure, some micro-entrepreneurs go on to become mini-entrepreneurs – but the larger fact is you’re just subdividing poverty. You’re getting more and more people competing, trying to pursue the same survival strategies in the same place. Those are the facts that darken this book the most, I think. They’re also what darken the horizon of research on the city in general, even more than questions of sanitation and so on. What the World Bank, what the NGOs, what all the apostles of neoliberal self-help depend on is the availability of cheap, squattable land, and the existence of entrepreneurial opportunities in the informal sector.

If you exhaust those two, people will be driven to the wall – and then the safety valves won’t work. Then the urban poor will run out of the resources for miracles.

BLDGBLOG: I’ll wrap up with two quick questions. It’s interesting that you’re raising a family – even two young toddlers – in a world where, as you write, there are emerging super-plagues, earthquakes, race riots, tornadoes in Los Angeles, mega-slums, etc. Are you nervous about the future for your kids?

Davis: Well, of course. I mean, people who read into my work a kind of delight in disaster and apocalypse either are reading incorrectly or I’m a bad writer – because that isn’t the intention. To be honest with you, there’s more of a yearning for these kinds of apocalypse in the literature of Pentecostalism –

BLDGBLOG: Good point.

Davis: – and that’s apocalypse properly understood, its real, Biblical meaning. It’s precisely this idea of an unrevealed, secret history of the world that will become luminously clear in the last hour, and will rewrite history from the standpoint of the people who had previously been history’s victims. I would say that, as somebody who’s ultimately an old-fashioned socialist, or rationalist, with an almost excessive faith in science – you know, I tremble when I write this stuff. I take no joy in writing a book about car bombs, but it just struck me that here was this technology nobody had written about on its own terms, yet it had become horribly successful. It’s a lot easier for me to cope with hypochondria about avian flu – having written a book about it – than if I hadn’t written about it. Let’s put it that way. I feel the same way about the future of my children.

BLDGBLOG: Finally, have you ever considered working outside the genre of critical nonfiction, and – in an almost Ridley Scott-like way – directing a film, or writing a novel?

Davis: [laughs] Well, I have in an extremely minor way: I’ve published two young adult science adventure novels – which is the name I’ve given to the genre – through Viggo Mortenson’s little press, Perceval Press. Three young kids, including my son who lives in Dublin, are the heroes.

BLDGBLOG: How’d that come about?

Davis: It all arose out of the fact that, in 1998, I got this MacArthur Foundation money – and I just wasted it all [laughter]. My kids and I went to the four corners of the earth. I took my son to east Greenland, and one night – because the sun never sets, and the sled dogs howl into the wee hours – he asked me to tell him a story, and I spun it off into a novel. But that’s as far as I’ll get. I mean, living in LA as long as I have, the one thing you learn is: stay away from Hollywood. Never, ever contemplate writing a screenplay or getting involved in a movie; it’s just a graveyard of talented people. I’ve literally seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by the allure of that kind of stuff. And I’ve never had the slightest desire to do it. If I wrote fiction it would be very forgettable.

BLDGBLOG: So if Ridley Scott called you in to write his next screenplay you’d have to refuse?

Davis: I’ve seen people I admire greatly – hugely talented, much greater writers than I am – just crash and burn and destroy their lives: partially because they never learned the difference between good writing and Hollywood. It’s the same way with the seduction of becoming a public intellectual, having lots of fans, and reading in bookstores all the time – which I’ve learned to run away from with horror. Right now I’m trying to simplify my life by cutting out as much of that stuff as possible, because I’m having a ball with my two two-year olds, hanging out in Balboa Park everyday.

(BLDGBLOG owes an enormous thanks to Mike Davis for his time, patience, and willingness to see this discussion through to completion. All drawings used in this interview are by Leah Beeferman – who also deserves a big thanks. Don’t miss part one).

In space, no one can hear you pray

[Image: NASA].

Qibla is the direction a Muslim must face when praying—specifically, toward the Kaaba, in Mecca. In order to align oneself properly with that religious axis mundi, all kinds of complicated mathematical techniques had to be used or developed. From compasses to azimuths to spherical trigonometry, determining what angle to take in relation to the horizon became as much a mathematical, or geographic, pursuit as it was religious.

So now, as Malaysia prepares to send three Muslim astronauts into space, the question of qibla has once again been revived: in what direction should an astronaut pray in order to face Mecca? As that last link reminds us, these astronauts “will also visit the International Space Station, which circles the earth 16 times in 24 hours, so another thorny question is how to pray five times a day as required by Islam.”

I’m imagining a bewildering series of gyroscopes, mirrors, magnets and platforms, with arms covered in quantum clocks, ticking off “days” where there are none, keeping time in space devoid of terrestrial references. Motors will click and whir, aligning the chair constantly, and whole new branches of robotics – RoboQibla™ – gyroPrayer® – will take off. Science academies throughout the Muslim world will start producing new and strange direction sensors, devices of alignment that’d make John Dee proud and Athanasius Kircher whistle. New space stations designed by architecture students in Dubai will show us the future of intercelestial travel: self-unfolding, solar-powered spaceships, ceaselessly rotating in space—whilst maintaining perfect ship-to-Mecca alignment.

The Jesuits respond with floating cathedrals… flying buttresses in space.

(Original article spotted at Off Center).

Mineral TV and the Archipelago of Abandoned Shopping Malls

“A mediaeval cathedral was a sort of permanent and unchangeable TV programme that was supposed to tell people everything indispensable for their everyday life, as well as for their eternal salvation.” So says Umberto Eco, speaking at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Egypt, 2003.

[Image: Cathedral at Bourges, by Arnaud Frich].

This makes me wonder if everyone on Earth could take everything they know and carve it into a cliffside somewhere – or a mountain – sculpting all that rock into a cathedral; and, then, if they could take that hulking monolith of information and minerals and break it off, launch it into orbit, send it drifting through space… It’d be a kind of moving table of contents for the human species. A knowledge-object.
Would that have a better chance than NASA’s so-called Golden Record, that got sent out with Voyager, of explaining the Earth and human history to distant civilizations?

[Image: NASA’s Golden Record, “intended to communicate a story of our world to extraterrestrials.” The record is really “a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk containing sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth,” including the sound of “surf, wind and thunder, birds, whales, and other animals,” and a signed letter from then-president Jimmy Carter. A Menudo video was reportedly removed at the last minute].

Or, instead of demolishing old buildings, perhaps we should detach them from the Earth’s surface and send them into space as lessons for alien species. Like that Michael Crichton novel. You could learn about the Earth by studying its architecture – because the planet flings buildings everywhere. Constantly.
Archipelagoes of abandoned shopping malls pulled slowly toward distant planets. There goes the Mall of America…
A new film directed by Jerry Bruckheimer.

Roof-farming southeast London

Swiss Cheese City, by London-based architecture firm Agents of Change (AOC), proposes that “vacancy in cities” is really “a starting point for a new urban form.” Accordingly, the project hopes to “generate new possibilities from holes in the built fabric,” such as “Special Cultivation Zones (SCZs).”
Special Cultivation Zones are an urban land-bank, defined by “temporary boundaries within which land can’t be bought or sold, and emerging skills, social networks and locally-grown produce are cultivated in the ‘vacant’ city fabric.”
(For more on urban farming, see Pruned or Inhabitat).
Then there’s AOC’s Croydon Roof Divercity project –

– which radically rethinks the landscape of Croydon’s roofs (and sounds really, really fun): “Taking the flat roofs of Croydon as our testbed,” they write, “we propose a new roofscape for the city – beaches, ice rinks, golf courses, allotments, skateboard parks and pasture refresh Croydon’s tired concrete.” How about a shooting range? (For more on green roofs, see Inhabitat).
After all, AOC asks, how could London be adapted “to an agricultural logic – the logic of rotation, seasons, ground and growth?”
Thus, with a vision straight out of sci-fi, they describe Hackney New Garden City, complete with an “Agricultural Action Zone (AAZ).” This would include “a self-sufficient ecology of grass roads, localised rainwater collection, organic solar films and biological compost systems… liberating the ground’s agricultural potential.”

[Images: Hackney New Garden City, before and after].

For another place you could put those ideas to work, see Philadelphia’s Urban Voids; then check out these photos of “arbortecture” – or, plants growing out of buildings. (Via Pruned).

Deep Space Hilton

[Image: The “inflatable multilayered polymer hull” of this orbiting hotel room “will be around 30 centimetres thick and will contain layers of Kevlar – as used in bullet-proof vests – to provide some protection against micrometeorites and space debris” – as well as from rowdy hotel guests. Click on to enlarge; from New Scientist].

Might future space tourists need an inflatable space hotel? Of course – and “Las Vegas hotelier Robert Bigelow is aiming to supply it. Bigelow made his fortune as the owner of the Budget Suites of America hotel chain, and he is now launching a $500 million effort to expand his business off-planet.”
The design for Bigelow’s space hotel was taken from “TransHab, a never-used NASA design for an inflatable space station.” (TransHab also appears in an old BLDGBLOG post on astrobiology).
The space hotel “will provide 330 cubic metres of living space for space tourists or industrial researchers” – or even maximum security prisoners…? Instead of a secret prison city, they build a secret prison satellite-archipelago… Forget the death penalty: you’re sent alone into outer space.
Setting up the prison break film of the century.
They whiz you up there in a space elevator

[Images: Check out the Space Elevator blog, the LiftPort website and image gallery (“dedicated to building a mass transportation system to open up access to the inner solar system”), and some other technical drawings here].

– but don’t forget to pack your toothbrush.
If the your hotel room begins to wander, of course, a space tether could save you (a “100-kilometre-long ‘fishing line’ that spins freely in space may one day catch and fling satellites to higher orbits… using just solar power and the Earth’s magnetic field”); and if the tether fails, you can always use Richard Gott’s map of the universe to find your way home. (“Gott realised that… if he drew our galaxy to fit on the page, he’d need another 100 kilometres of paper to show the most distant quasar” – skip to bottom of link to see how he made the map work).
Or it serves as home for an exiled author, writing back from deep space.

(With thanks to the excellent Interactive Architecture dot Org, as well as the always ahead of its time we make money not art).


“Tropical Green” runs 9-10 February 2006, down in sunny Miami: “The two-day Tropical Green conference will be an invaluable experience for architects, interior designers, developers, city planners, politicians, and voters in search of learning the ways of 21st century design that will both help the environment and their wallets.” Check it out.

It’s funny, meanwhile, but I’m reading The Drowned World by J.G. Ballard, even as I post this, and his descriptions – written in 1962 – of a flooded, neo-tropical London have totally changed my conception of what “a tropical city” actually is.

In Ballard’s novel the sun has developed a kind of astrophysical Tourette’s Syndrome, and it’s started scorching the planet with radiation storms and UV bursts. This has melted the icecaps, raised the ambient global temperature to 120º+ and forced everyone to move to northern Canada and Siberia.

London has become a kind of backed-up toilet of silt and Jurassic vegetation, “a nightmare world of competing organic forms returning rapidly to their Paleozoic past.” Huge iguanas lumber around in the heat. Buildings left and right are collapsing, their lower six floors immersed in polluted seawater, “miasmic vegetation… crowding from rooftop to rooftop.”

The city is fossilizing.

As Ballard writes: “A few fortified cities defied the rising water-levels and the encroaching jungles, building elaborate sea-walls around their perimeters, but one by one these were breached. Only within the former Arctic and Antarctic Circles was life tolerable.”

[Image: The Drowned World‘s rather unimpressive cover…].

So the story goes that a research biologist is touring this neo-tropical London, boating from hotel to hotel across fetid lagoons, recording the types of plants that infest the city. Meanwhile monsoons are coming up from the south, everyone is dying of skin cancer and no one can sleep. The intensity of the sun’s radiation is making everything mutate.

In between some eyebrow-raising moments of bad pop-Nietzschean pseudo-philosophy – the surviving humans find themselves psychologically regressing down the totem pole of evolution toward… something or other; it’s all very psychedelic and 2001 – there are some cool descriptions of these new urban tropics:

“Giant groves of gymnosperms stretched in dense clumps along the rooftops of the submerged buildings, smothering the white rectangular outlines… Narrow creeks, the canopies overhead turning them into green-lit tunnels, wound away from the larger lagoons, eventually joining the six hundred-yard-wide channels which broadened outwards toward the former suburbs of the city. Everywhere the silt encroached, shoring itself in huge banks against a railway viaduct or crescent of offices, oozing through a submerged arcade… Many of the smaller lakes were now filled in by the silt, yellow discs of fungus-covered sludge from which a profuse tangle of competing plant forms emerged, walled gardens in an insane Eden.

Anyway, one could analyze the metaphors and all that – Ballard uses the word “competing” twice in the examples above (is he projecting a neo-Hobbesean vision onto Nature…? etc.) – but one could also find something better to do.

And, of course, one could also attend the sustainable design for tropical cities conference in Miami – and tell them you heard about it on BLDGBLOG…

The Pillars of Tokyo

If Fernando Galli Bibiena, famed scenographer, designer extraordinaire of endless, receding, Baroque pillared symmetries, with trick halls and mirage-like backdrops—

—were cloned next year, raised in Hollywood, and hired to remake Total Recall, he’d probably make something like this:

It’s Tokyo’s massive “G-Cans Project,” a subterranean system of polished concrete viaducts built “for preventing overflow of the major rivers and waterways spidering the city.”

This emergency overflow-sewer is apparently “the largest in the world,” with “five 32m diameter, 65m deep concrete containment silos which are connected by 64 kilometers of tunnel sitting 50 meters beneath the surface. The whole system is powered by 14000 horsepower turbines which can pump 200 tons of water a second.”

The G-Cans Project reveals the quasi-mythic splendor of grandiose civic infrastructure, something the United States is ridding itself of entirely—yet also something Japan is now all but entombed within.

A “construction state”—or doken kokka—has effectively taken over the Japanese economy, according to Gavan McCormack in the New Left Review. The doken kokka, McCormack writes, “is opaque, unaccountable, and therefore hard to reform. Essentially, it enables the country’s powerful bureaucrats to channel the population’s life savings into a wide range of debt-encrusted public bodies—those in charge of highways, bridge-building, dams and development initiatives,” and that means “promising new public-works projects,” thus “concreting the archipelago.”

Under construction right now, in fact, is “a grandiose [national development plan] calling for the construction of new railway lines, express highways, airports, information systems, no less than six new bridges between the islands, large dams and nuclear installations and, last but far from least, a new capital city… to take over many functions from Tokyo.”

The article is pretty amazing, actually, even shocking—though I do have to say that some of the projects it describes would be an engineer’s dream. But it comes with the realization that all this frenzied global construction may be more than just a bubble—see recent analyses of China’s own building boom, for instance—or Dubai—but a kind of hysteria, a building-pathology.

One wonders, in fact, if there might be a disease, something Freud discovered, a neurosis of some kind: suddenly you start building things, and you don’t stop building things. You move beyond talking—building, building, always building—and soon you’re like the father in Close Encounters of the Third Kind, with mashed potatoes all over your hands and there’s a mountain in your living room. That, or you’ve just built the world’s largest sewer.

(See earlier on BLDGBLOG).

Nobson Newtown

I just found an old article from frieze about graphic artist Paul Noble‘s “monumental eight-year project… [to create] a fictional city called Nobson Newtown.”

Nobson Newtown was an “exercise in self-portraiture via town planning,” involving “the painstaking design of a special font based on the forms of classic modernist architecture.”
The “city,” in other words, was made of words.

“Variously described as ‘3-D Scrabble tiles’ or ‘Lego blocks’, Noble’s pictograms name the buildings that they depict. From the hospital (Nobspital) to the cemetery (Nobsend) via the town centre (Nobson Central) or the Mall, citations from Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat, Gerard Winstanley’s letters to Oliver Cromwell or T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland are camouflaged within the fields, the trees or the brickwork. Noble’s project embodies a complex infrastructure of civil planning, social policies and historical perspectives” – and it was all done with pencil. (Book available here).

“At first,” says the BBC, “the drawings appear to be depictions of a crazy Babylonian society, with a touch of Brueghel’s Tower Of Babel and Robert Crumb’s rounded comic strips. Then you realise each building is also a 3-D letter of the alphabet spelling out hard to decipher sentences in Noble’s self-created Nobfont.”

But he wasn’t the first.
Nearly two decades earlier, in 1980, Steven Holl published his own “Alphabetical City” through Pamphlet Architecture, and it, too, consisted entirely of buildings that were actually letters, that were actually a city, that… – but the funny thing is, Holl’s drawings look absolutely, unpublishably stupid compared to Noble’s:

Hello? One wonders which two-minute lunch break Holl took to draw those… Or was it thirty seconds?
In any case, the creation of architectural space through a tweaking of the alphabet is not an inherently interesting proposition, but Noble’s eye-failure-inducing drawings reward repeated viewings. Just blink occasionally.
The buildings, frieze‘s Tom Morton claims, look like, “odd, wind-carved rock formations. Standing on higher ground, squinting against the sun, we’d see that they formed an eroded text.”
Here I’m reminded of the idea of “slow sculpture” from China Miéville’s novel, Iron Council:
“Huge sedimentary stones… each carefully prepared: shafts drilled precisely, caustic agents dripped in, for a slight and so-slow dissolution of rock in exact planes, so that over years of weathering, slabs would fall in layers, coming off with the rain, and at very last disclosing their long-planned shapes. Slow-sculptors never disclosed what they had prepared, and their art revealed itself only long after their deaths.”
Perhaps, in those dissolving rocks, you could plan a slow and secret alphabet…

Geomagnetic harddrive

In her recent biography of Sir Christopher Wren – whose towers, domes and steeples appear in the image above – Lisa Jardine describes how she discovered that the London Monument, designed in 1677 by Wren and Robert Hooke together, is actually “a unique, hugely ambitious, vastly oversized scientific instrument” that uses “strategically placed vents and vantage points” to function as a multi-purpose observation deck and lab for measuring atmospheric pressure.

While I was living in Berlin a few years ago, it struck me once that the U-Bahn system could pass, in its own way, for a different kind of “hugely ambitious, vastly oversized scientific instrument” – before I realized, of course, that the Tube, the Metro, the NY subway, etc. – the Beijing underground, Prague, Rome and so forth – all of them could pass for such “scientific instruments.”

In other words, those buried urban routes, with all their circuits linked and cross-connected into electrically mechanized networks that passed through mineral deposits and solid bedrock – including the various branches of late-night service that maintained more or less perpetual motion, humming and soaring through manmade canyons beneath parks and plazas and apartment blocks, as if to imply that the global geotechnical industry had been taken over by Athanasius Kircher

I realized that, in all that tumult of foundations and energy, you could, if you wanted to, listen for the subtle, cello-like moan of distant trains; and it occurred to me that the whole system, the entirety of the Berlin U-Bahn, could pass for a working model of the universe. A sonic model, at the very least, of the so-called Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation. A vaulted hum, reverbing back and through itself beneath the city.

Or – and this next idea is only slightly less ridiculous, for you cynics out there – it occurred to me that if the U-Bahn system could somehow be hooked up to massive, earth-anchored magnets, and made, therefore, to produce a magnetic field of its own, that you could transform all of Berlin into a geomagnetic harddrive.

As a sail traps the wind, a planetary harddrive would use geomagnetism.

Provided constant motion on behalf of the trains, I thought, and given absolutely gigantic magnets of the right polarity and location, Berlin could start producing its own magnetic field – which meant that any city with a subway could be transformed into a harddrive. Harddrive London. Harddrive Beijing.

Harddrive Moscow.

Of course, it’s obvious even to me that you’d have to do quite a lot more than just bury some magnets underground in order to transform a city into a harddrive – you’d need a shovel, for instance, and perhaps some strong anti-manic drugs; but my point is that if Christopher Wren could build a tower that simultaneously memorialized the Great Fire of London even as it acted as a scientific device, then perhaps you could turn urban infrastructure itself into a kind of working scientific apparatus.

You could turn all of Berlin into a geomagnetic harddrive.